Down along Route 32, just outside of Stafford Springs, CT, is an old mill building, one of many scattered throughout the old mill towns. Unlike many of the old mills, however, this one still has some life left in it.
If you’re like me, you might have driven through Willington and seen the parking lot of this particular mill absolutely packed on a weekend, or you may have seen signs posted outside about their creative space for rent and wondered, ‘what is going on here?’ Call it the Packing House, the Millworks, de ve lop ment gallery, they’re all part of the Eastern Connecticut Center for History, Art, and Performance (also known as EC-CHAP). Whatever you call it, this industrial setting filled with beautiful, high-ceilinged studios for painters, writers, poets, and musicians is certain to become a haven for creative life in the area, and possibly Southern New England.
EC-CHAP, the organization that owns the mill, is a nonprofit founded by Tom Buccino, whose father once owned the mill in its operational days. There is a deep respect for the past at the mill, and that takes the form of the Gardiner Hall Jr. Museum, an exhibit that highlights the history of one of the area’s greatest philanthropists (and the former owner of the mill). Although the museum only takes up a single room in the expansive mill, it’s clear that there has been careful consideration of each piece of history within. That respect for the past doesn’t diminish Tom’s plans for the future, however.
“The end game,” as Tom puts it, “is to serve as a significant cultural organization essentially for all of Southern New England. To get there, we want people to know that we exist, that we’re here and we’re here to serve them. We’re membership based, so our objective is to grow that membership, not only from the standpoint of a small revenue stream, but more importantly volunteerism and getting engaged. We love participation.
“We wanted to try initially to create a community that’s synergistic. Not all of them necessarily have to be fine artists, they just have to have creative thought process in their work, and show that in how they work with others here. For instance, the Gardiner Hall Jr. Company was innovative for its time, and we want to continue that innovation and create an environment where people can interact with each other.”
Tom paints a broad understanding of creativity, one that invites new talent and voices into a conversation that is sure to reach out and spark interest in artists, performers, and the public of the entire area. To that end, after forming EC-CHAP, Tom began looking for board members and found Paul Johnson, a Stafford resident and local photographer, printmaker, and multimedia designer. Much like Tom, Paul has put extensive work into the Millworks. His latest accomplishment has been creating the de ve lop ment gallery, a space where the viewer is invited to look at art, break it down, and look at it in a new way.
“We’ve been using a space outside the museum for some pop-up shows,” Paul said, “but this is taking it another step. You might call that a grand corridor, but the de ve lop ment gallery would be more of a conventional gallery. Part of the development, as we understand it, is to develop tools and develop as an artist. For instance, there are smaller spaces. One of the thoughts is that members, studio holders, or people that even work in their homes, would be able to show their work and get feedback on it. The key thing with development is, as you see on the sign, the word is broken up. It fits the concept of gallery that we want to have here.”
Paul showed me the gallery, which boasted high, beautiful windows, but then showed me to several smaller galleries to illustrate how individual shows could be held.
“For instance, there’s a nice room that has a view of a waterfall. That room, and the gallery itself, would be an opportunity for an artist to have a bit more control over the situation, to just do a show themselves. Say you’re working on some pieces and you decide, hey it’s time to bring some people in, celebrate a little and get some feedback on your work. Tools that might fit a larger gallery would also benefit a smaller space, and we’d be open to those kinds of possibilities as well.”
As Paul showed me around the building, we ran into Rebecca Zablocki, one of two artists-in-residence sponsored by EC-CHAP. She currently holds the position of Assistant Director of the Gallery at the Worcester Center for Crafts. As a printmaker, her artwork is labor intensive and painstaking, but results in beautiful, surreal works of art.
“It’s really the first opportunity that I’ve had to have a dedicated making space,” she said when I asked about her time as artist-in-residence. “Starting this artist-in-residence program has been huge for me. I’ve never been able to just sit down and focus in a space that was dedicated just for me, and I’ve been getting a ton of artwork done because of it.”
Much like everyone else, she loves working in the beautiful old mill. “A lot of the time I’m here, I’m usually snapping pictures of the building itself.”
As their name implies, EC-CHAP is dedicated to history, art, and performance. Up to now, most of their performances have come in the form of musical acts brought into the Packing House, the public venue of the Millworks. They have also done some dramatic performances of one-act plays, as well as their monthly Film Fridays, but their music nights have garnered the most attention, and now have a loyal crowd.
“These are musicians that could stand up to anyone on a national stage,” Tom said about the acts they’ve hosted so far. “They’re incredibly talented, and whether they have a local following or not, we want to help get them noticed.”
Their most recent foray into performance, much to the delight of the community, has been dance. They have, at this point, had three dance nights hosted by seven-time national champion Kelly Madenjian, whose love of ballroom dancing inspired her to share lessons with the community.
When I asked about how the dance nights were structured, she said, “We don’t get heavy in technique—these people just want to dance. They want to enjoy a night out with their partner, a night out with their friends, good music, and a good place to be.” She went on to say that, like Rebecca and the other artists who are gradually making the Millworks and EC-CHAP a home, “When I came to this space, I was enchanted by it, as well as by Tom’s commitment to this building and bringing arts to the community. He is dedicated to this, and it’s really beautiful.”
Again and again, people respond to Tom’s dedication, as well as the building, as beautiful.
Paul said of Tom, “Once he took over, he told me it had always been his dream to do something more than just studio space, to actually make an art center out of it.”
The entire project and space itself is inspiring. For Tom, and the entire region, the future seems bright.
“The scope really enlarged,” he said. “We were more of a support organization for the community and those that had space here, and we’re moving toward serving externally, locally, regionally, and hopefully beyond.”
156 RIVER ROAD • WILLINGTON, CT • (518) 791-9474 • INFO@THEMILLWORKS.US